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Dave Nichols takes over MoDOT

Dave Nichols smiled when asked Friday morning if being Missouri’s new Transportation department director had been on his “bucket list.”

“I look at it this way — I like being challenged,” Nichols said Friday morning, during an hourlong, informal session arranged so reporters could meet Nichols and discuss his new role.

“I never thought I would be an emergency medical technician, but I was,” he said. “And I learned so much about working with, and dealing with, people through that.

“And then going through engineering school, and all of the academics associated with that, sort of set the stage of developing discipline ... about how to address issues.”

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks at MoDOT, with the surprise announcement March 21 that Kevin Keith, the department’s director since November 2010, had taken medical leave until he retires July 1.

Nichols, the department’s chief engineer since 2011, first was named interim director. Then last Tuesday, the Highways and Transportation Commission hired Nichols as the official director.

Among his priorities is making sure MoDOT continues to help improve economic development opportunities in the state.

“We all know that transportation is about moving people and goods all across our state and all across our nation,” he told reporters.

His 29 years working in the industry has given Nichols a good view of transportation improvements helping communities grow and expand, he said.

As chief engineer, Nichols was involved in developing and implementing the “Bolder Five Year Direction” plan intended to reduce the department’s workforce by 20 percent (more than 1,200 people), close 131 facilities (including three district offices) and sell more than 700 pieces of (mostly large) equipment.

“It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done,” he said, “to go through what we went through over the last two years.”

Nichols said he already has been active in explaining the department’s financial needs to lawmakers, who are considering a proposed constitutional amendment to increase the sales tax by a penny, for 10 years, so MoDOT can rebuild Interstate 70, improve a number of other roads and bridges — and improve other transportation modes.

“It’s not just about highways and bridges anymore,” Nichols said. “We’re one of the few states in the United States that doesn’t have dedicated, statewide transportation funding for other modes of transportation.”

Nichols, 57, joined MoDOT in 1984 after graduating from the University of Missouri’s Engineering School.

“My whole career has been with MoDOT,” he noted. “I have a lot of history ... working in various positions — which has been great learning opportunities for me, in getting out and meeting people in different parts of the business.”

Since 2000, Nichols has been based in Jefferson City.

Nichols said that, in recent years, MoDOT has looked more to using “more innovations” in ways to build new roads — most obviously the “design-build” concept where the contractor does the engineering designs for a project (subject to MoDOT’s approval) before construction can begin.

“It’s not a tool to use on everything,” he explained, “but it is a process that works well for the right project — and we have the legislation and statutory authority to use it on a limited basis.”

Nichols said he will continue to be “passionate about” using innovations to improve both construction work and safety.

He wants to make sure the roads are safe for Missourians to use — and that workers are as safe as possible while building and maintaining the transportation system.

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